Snowflakes or revolutionaries: what is the new student identity?

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:00, Pit TheatreIdentity politics

The number of young people who are going into higher education is increasing – up from 14 per cent in 1984 to 42 per cent in 2017. With a growing university population, being a ‘student’ has become a kind of identity group. On the one hand, contemporary students are often lampooned as ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘snowflakes’. On the other hand, many students consider themselves to be – and are often talked about as – a radical future generation of changemakers.

We certainly seem to be talking about students a whole lot more than in the past. Whether it’s debates about student satisfaction surveys, free speech on campus or sexual-harassment cases, student life is treated as separate from the rest of society. Concerns about mental health at universities paint a picture of students as riddled with new anxieties, protected by ‘safe spaces’ and in need of pastoral care from university administrations. Back when he was universities minister, Tory MP Sam Gyimah declared that ‘well-being’, not learning, should be universities’ top priority.

And yet, despite concerns about student mental health, student activism seems to have made a comeback. Whether it is climate change, LGBT rights or international affairs, many students feel comfortable occupying buildings, protesting on campus and generally making themselves heard. The National Union of Students (NUS) boasts a membership of over seven million and claims that today’s students can ‘shape the future of education – and create a better world’.

How do we explain this new student identity, which seems to be both vulnerable and radical at the same time? Are students really the voice of a new generation, or is the stereotypical student identity, of a social-justice warrior with a microphone, just that – a stereotype? Are most students getting on with their degrees, drinking too much and carrying on as normal? Or has our worrying about the well-being of young people created a new identitarian student, who needs to be listened to – and recognised?